December 1, 2011 6:31 pm

Gingrich forces pundits to reassess his chances

When Newt Gingrich started rising in the polls last month, most political observers wrote him off as the latest Republican presidential hopeful to enjoy his 15 minutes of fame as the party searched for an alternative to Mitt Romney.

Now some are wondering if the former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives could prove to be more than a fad.

Mr Gingrich leads the latest aggregate of national polls, running more than six points ahead of Mr Romney, a moderate who was until recently considered the most likely nominee, and he is gaining traction.

“Over the next six weeks, Newt is going to be right up there at the front of the pack,” said Tom Davis, who was elected to the House in 1994, the year Mr Gingrich led the Republican “wave” and became speaker. “The question is if he can perform in Iowa and New Hampshire.”

If Mr Gingrich finishes in the top three in the Iowa caucuses on January 3 and also does well in New Hampshire a week later, he would go into South Carolina and Florida – two races where the former Georgia representative is expected to do well – with the wind in his sails.

But, as Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute who has known the former speaker for decades, says: “Thirty-four days is a long time for Newt to self-destruct.”

The former speaker has been selling himself as the voice of experience and has repeatedly referred to his PhD and his background as a historian to portray himself as an intellectual force in a field of lightweights.

But he also has a great deal of political baggage. His tenure as speaker was marred by an unpopular government shutdown, his three marriages do not sit well with social conservatives, and the millions of dollars he has made as helping companies since he resigned as speaker in 1998 have raised questions about his ethics.

Gingrich poll graphic

Recent remarks suggesting he supported amnesty for illegal immigrants have also damaged his standing with the Tea Party movement, already sceptical about his Washington insider status. Mr Romney has been trying to dent Mr Gingrich further by calling him a “lifelong politician”.

There are plenty of people who think Mr Gingrich’s political history could make it difficult for him to become the nominee. “I don’t think the Newt Gingrich we’re seeing now is that different from the Newt Gingrich who left us in the 1990s as a fairly discredited public official,” said Tony Fratto, a former spokesman for George W. Bush.

The former speaker’s allies disagree. They argue that in a year when some Republican candidates have wilted in front of the cameras or drawn ridicule for elementary mistakes on policy, Mr Gingrich’s strong command of the issues and polish in front of the cameras set him apart. “He clearly knows his facts and that’s important when so many of these guys don’t know the basics,” said Mr Davis.

Interactive graphic: Race for the White House

US presidential elections interactive

The backgrounds and platforms of some of the declared candidates and others who have expressed interest in running

This week, Rick Perry, the Texas governor, embarrassed himself by not knowing the date of the election or the voting age, while Michele Bachmann, a member of the House intelligence committee, said the US should close its embassy in Iran (it was closed in 1979). Those followed Herman Cain’s drawing of widespread ridicule last month after he was filmed offering a rambling non-answer to a question about Libya.

“These are not just subtle signs of weakness – they have neon signs on their foreheads saying ‘I’m dumb’,” Mr Ornstein said. “So it is not surprising that Newt is the last one standing.”

But Mr Gingrich could yet be undone by the unconventional way he is running his campaign. His associates describe him as a “micro-manager” whose bid is largely run by his wife – a big part of the reason his staff quit en masse in June.

Although his campaign says fundraising is picking up as his poll numbers rise, Mr Gingrich still has little in the way of ground operations in early voting states such as Iowa.

“Iowa is a very difficult place,” Mr Fratto said. “What usually wins is a well-organised campaign and very strong ground game to get voters out. I don’t think that Gingrich has had the time or the resources to put that groundwork in place.”

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